Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Book 11: The Man in the High Castle

By Philip K. Dick

My first introduction to Philip K. Dick is this 1962 Hugo Award winner. And what a fantastic read! I assume the majority of you 50-bookers already know the premise since the novel was also reviewed by Olman and Buzby.

But for the few that don’t, TMITHC is basically an alternate history novel that takes place about 15 years after the Allies were defeated by the Axis in World War II. The U.S. gets divided east and west between Germany and Japan respectively, and the narrative consists of what life is like under Axis rule by weaving together multiple storylines and various interconnected characters. There is also a novel-within-a-novel thread that’s like another what-if to the existing alternate universe. This meta-novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, influences many of the characters in TMITHC and is banned by the Germans since it’s written by an American who posits a world similar to ours where the Allies had won the war instead of the Axis.

Dick as well does a fascinating take on the portrayal of race relations, social hierarchies and politics in the context of a society under Axis rule. Some passages are disturbing in their candidness and 60’s era stereotyping. But Dick writes so thoughtfully and perceptively, that he draws you into his surreally logical yet aberrant universe.

Interestingly, not one race is portrayed in a very positive light. The Americans are meek and self-effacing, low in societal status, but not as low as the Chinese, Blacks or Jews. The Japanese are aesthetically and philosophically refined, yet obsessed with collecting artifacts from pre-war Americana. And the poor Germans, who are portrayed as crazed Nazis hell-bent on eradicating all undesirables, such as Jews and blacks, from the face of the earth. Much time is spent on how one race perceives the other.

One storyline deals with an American, Robert Childan, who runs a shop called American Artistic Handicrafts that mainly caters to a Japanese clientele. He gets invited to the home of a young & attractive upper-class Japanese couple who prepare an American-style dinner of steak and potatoes, steak being regarded as a luxury item by Americans.

Mrs Kasoura proudly declares to her guest: “Doing my best to be authentic… for instance, carefully shopping in teeny-tiny American markets down along Mission Street. Understand that’s the real McCoy.”

We then see how, during his visit, Childan’s initial delight turns to resentment, when he eventually sees past the Kasouras’ fa├žade of sophistication. He thinks to himself:

“You cook the native foods to perfection, Robert Childan thought. What they say is true: your powers of imitation are immense. Apple pie, Coca-Cola, stroll after the movie, Glenn Miller… you could paste together out of tin and rice paper a complete artificial America. Rice-paper Mom in the kitchen, rice-paper Dad reading the newspaper. Rice-paper pup at his feet. Everything.”

As I mentioned earlier, disturbing in its candidness and stereotyping, but nevertheless perceptive and well-written! I also like this quote cuz you can see how Dick is a big influence on Chuck Palahniuk’s style.

Like in Olman’s review, I wholeheartedly agree Dick does an excellent job of writing the internal thought processes of his characters, especially with capturing the speech patterns of Asian-inflected English. One of my favourite characters is Nobusuke Tagomi, a representative at the Japanese Trade Mission in San Francisco, who becomes involved in a counter-intelligence plot to prevent a radical German faction from destroying the Japanese Home Islands with nuclear bombs.

Below are some particularly cool Tagomi quotes:

“This talk will fail, Mr. Tagomi thought. No matter what is at stake. We cannot enter the monstrous schizophrenic morass of Nazi internecine intrigue; our minds cannot adapt.”

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He held the dull silver triangle only. Shadow had cut off the sun; Mr. Tagomi glanced up.
Tall, blue-suited policeman standing by his bench, smiling.
“Eh?” Mr. Tagomi said, startled.
“I was just watching you work that puzzle.” The policeman started on along the path.
“Puzzle,” Mr. Tagomi echoed. “Not a puzzle.”
“Isn’t that one of those little puzzles you have to take apart? My kid has a whole lot of them. Some are hard.” The policeman passed on.
Mr. Tagomi thought, Spoiled. My chance at nirvana. Gone. Interrupted by that white barbarian Neanderthal yank. That subhuman supposing I worked a child’s puerile toy.
Rising from the bench he took a few steps unsteadily. Must calm down. Dreadful low-class jingoistic racist invectives, unworthy of me.

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Anyway, TMITHC is full of these awesome passages, and I can now see why Dick is such a popular and much-loved writer. However, the ending was a bit disappointing for me.

*** WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD ***

There was an exciting bit of action before the denouement where Mr. Tagomi & friends take on a bunch of Nazi thugs, and they just kick ass yet maintain their cool. But the final resolution where one of the characters, Juliana Frink, finally meets the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and they consult the I Ching, and discover that their own world is also fictional. This was an awesome concept to end the novel’s theme of alternate realities, but how it was executed felt rushed and not very well thought out. As a result, it didn’t really ring true to me, and didn’t provide me with a satisfying ending.